Food will win the war – Campaign on the WWI home front

By Carol / April 18, 2017 /

April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into the Great War later known as World War I. To mark the anniversary, I’m sharing some information I uncovered as I researched my novel Go Away Home.

When the U.S. entered the war, the country marshaled forces for both the battlefield and home front. One home front initiative was the U.S. Food Administration led by Iowa’s own Herbert Hoover.

Years of fighting in Europe devastated people and farms. The U.S. Food Administration set out to provide food for U.S. troops and our Allies, as well as to feed the people of both continents. Rather than use strict rationing as Europe had done, Hoover choose a food policy based on volunteerism spurred by patriotism. He said:

Our Conception of the problem in the United States is that we should assemble the voluntary effort of the people … We propose to mobilize the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice in this country.”

Indeed, self-denial and self-sacrifice became rules of the day as Hoover orchestrated a comprehensive campaign under the slogan “Food Will Win the War.” Posters, articles, workshops and educational materials blanketed the country, promoting such approaches as Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays.

The campaign appealed primarily to women since they were responsible for raising food and buying and preparing meals. The campaign offered recipes instructing women on substitutions, e.g. corn syrup or honey for sugar, fish or cheese instead of meat. Instructions encouraged stretching critical resources, e.g. augmenting wheat flour with corn or oat flour.

Waste became a public enemy. Women were counseled to stop waste in connection with such food preparation efforts as peeling potatoes, cutting off bread crusts, throwing out sour milk, meat and chicken bones.

The campaign exhorted men and children to do their part, too, particularly when it came to cleaning their plates.

The effort was a success. Over the course of the campaign, domestic food consumption reduced 15% without rationing. Over a 12-month period from 1918-1919, the United States furnished 18,500,000 tons of food to the Allies.

The campaign continued after the 1918 armistice, sending 20 million tons of food to European allies.

I can’t help but wonder if such a campaign based on personal sacrifice would engage Americans today. What do you think?


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  1. Merril Smith on April 18, 2017 at 11:55 am

    Interesting post and question, Carol. The country is so polarized today, I really don’t know if people would support such measures. And I can’t imagine dt doing anything based on personal sacrifice.

    I looked through some WWI pamphlets and cookbooks when I was researching my History of American Cooking. As you know, there are many online sources, if people are interested. They are fascinating to read!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on April 18, 2017 at 12:29 pm

      PBS is currently doing a series on WWI that is both fascinating and unsettling to watch. There was a darker side to this ‘volunteer’ effort in the form of local Council for Defense groups that guilted and pressured people into doing their part. Sometimes the pressure went from intimidation to physical action. There are lessons to be learned there if we keep our eyes open.

  2. Nan Johnson on April 18, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    This is so interesting, Carol. Food and guilt seem to be ever connected; don’t waste, don’t eat too much!
    It is impressive, however, that we were able to reduce our consumption by 15% by changing our habits and working together. I remember President Carter during the energy crisis asking people to turn down their thermostats and put on a sweater. Even by then we seemed to have lost that spirit of self-denial, although I would like to believe we could still rally behind a common purpose.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on April 19, 2017 at 8:38 am

      Good (funny) point about guilt and food, Nan. That could be a post unto itself. Americans as a general category appear to be less about self denial as time passes. Is it our culture? The effects of sustained affluence? The changes in technology combined with a much larger population that makes it less likely-less critical that we all be involved? Lots of nuances, I think. As Merril suggests, in our increasingly divided political climate, finding a “common purpose” is increasingly challenging.

  3. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on April 19, 2017 at 10:55 am

    My husband and I (partly because of being refugees oursselves and partly because of having worked in Africa for almost two decades) have always been advocates of not wasting food. My husband is actually fanatic about it, which can be irritating! Even though we tried to instill this attitude in our kids (through example as well as through teaching) they have not made it their priority. We are always astounded at the amount of food waste in their households. They do however compost and recycle. It’s just that there is so much food left on the children’s plates that is then thrown away. But the children too are learning about composting and recycling.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on April 21, 2017 at 4:14 pm

      My husband and I learned to use food well from our parents who lived through the Depression. It also made an impact that we grew most of our food on the farm, and we were all involved in the monumental task of planting, growing, tending, harvesting, preserving each year. When you’ve worked so hard, you are mindful not to waste. Like you, Elfrieda, we didn’t get that value fully embedded in our son. I believe it’s hard to live in this culture of extreme plenty and still think you need to be quite so careful. Our granddaughters serve meals at the homeless shelter from time to time, so they’re able to see that not everyone is so fortunate.

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